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Happy 407th birthday to Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn!  The master’s peerless paintings and etchings show a unique understanding and empathy for the human condition.  Rembrandt painted faces more expressively than any other artist–because of this strength, his works attain deep emotional complexity.   To illustrate this, and to celebrate his birth, here is a masterpiece by Rembrandt which is in the collection of the Prado Museum in Madrid.  The painting is magnificent!  A pensive noblewoman (modeled by Rembrandt’s beloved wife Saskia) in resplendent jewels and silks takes a nautilus cup from a little page.  Behind her stands a strange gray figure, half-visible in the gloom—an apparition? a servant? The painter himself?  It is unclear.  The painting itself is a mystery which has been discussed an argued about for centuries.

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_014a

Rembrandt painted the work in 1634 (which we can see from his prominent signature and his inimitable style), but, uncharacteristically we do not know the title.  The painting is either “Artemisia Receiving Mausolus’ Ashes” or “Sophonisba Receiving the Poisoned Cup.”  If the first title is correct, then the nautilus cup which is dramatic focus of the painting contains the ashes of Queen Artemisia’s husband/brother, Mausolus, satrap of Persia.  Mausolus’ immense tomb (constructed by Artemisia) was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and gave us the word “mausoleum”.  Yet the great tomb was empty:  Artemisia had Mausolus’ ashes mixed into wine which she drank day after day until she had completely consumed his remains (the Greeks were fascinated by the fact that Artemisia was simultaneously the sister and wife and devourer of Mausolus).

However, if the second title is correct, then the seashell cup contains deadly poison.  Sophonisba was the daughter of the Carthaginian general Hasdrubal Gisco.  Upon his defeat, she took poison so as not to endure the humiliation of being part of a Roman triumph.   Nautilus shells allegedly had the magical power to negate poison (safety tip: this is not true at all).  That Sophonisba would commit suicide with such a cup indicates the true moral of the painting: the real poison is defeat and slavery.  Poison and a proud death are her antidotes.

Rembrandt_-_Artemis_-_Detail_Nautilus_cup

So which answer is right?  Or are they both wrong?  Saskia’s strange diffident anxiety could be fitting for either story, yet her manner and dress are not those of a grieving Persian sister-queen.   I favor the interpretation of the painting as that of the stoic Sophonisba.  These are her last moments and the gray figure is as much an inhabitant of the underworld as a flesh-and-blood attendant.  The strange whimsical garb is the fantasy raiment of vanished Carthage. But I could well be wrong. What do you think?

Stilleven met tomaten (Henk Helmantel)

Stilleven met tomaten (Henk Helmantel)

Henk Helmantel is a contemporary Dutch still life painter who paints classical subjects in a traditional style realistic taken from the Dutch golden age.  He mostly paints fruit, bottles, and boxes (although occasionally he paints an animal or some snail shells).  Although Helmantel’s work is classically inspired, it does not seem to have the same allegorical underpinning that 17th century Dutch art had.  Instead the drama in the work is conveyed by the arrangement of the objects and their relationship to the space around them.  In this respect—in color, form, and context—the works are indeed modern.  The spare clean lines and delicate loveliness of plums, berries, and vessels is somehow reminiscent of abstract artists and contemporary Dutch architecture (even if the paintings are simultaneously so dissimilar from these schools).

Fles Berkemeyer en keukenattributen (Henk Helmantel, oil on panel)

Fles Berkemeyer en keukenattributen (Henk Helmantel, oil on panel)

Dr. Brian May, astrophysicist, CBE

Dr. Brian May, astrophysicist, CBE

Brian May is an astrophysicist who pursued a career in music. He is the guitarist for the rock band Queen and he is more famous for writing “Fat Bottomed Girls”, “We Will Rock You”, & “Who Wants to Live Forever” than for anything he wrote while obtaining his Astrophysics degrees.  Brian was popularizing Galaxy Zoo on his blog (Galaxy Zoo is an online project which seeks public help in classifying vast numbers of galaxies.  A Dutch fan, Hanny van Arkel (a schoolteacher by trade), became interested in the project and started working on the site when she spotted a huge weird glowing green thing below spiral galaxy IC 2497.  She presented her findings to professional astronomers, who were also perplexed by the ghostly shape.  They duly named the object in her honor “Hanny’s Voorwerp” (which is Dutch for “Hanny’s thing”).

Hanny's Voorwerp and Galaxy IC2497 (Hubble Space Telescope)

Hanny’s Voorwerp and Galaxy IC2497 (Hubble Space Telescope)

So what is Hanny’s Voorwerp? The leading theory is that the supermassive black hole in the center of IC 2497 created huge jets of energy and gas as it (messily) devoured great masses of matter at the center of that galaxy.  These esoteric plumes interacted with an unrelated stream of gaseous matter hundreds of thousands of light years long (which is longer than our galaxy).  The thin clouds of glass then fluoresced like a krypton sign or a Scooby-Doo ghost.

Hanny Van Arkel

Hanny Van Arkel

Thanks Brian May and Hanny! This is one fancy voorwerp.

The Crown of Ardra (made by an unknown goldsmith, 1664)

Behold the majestic Crown of Ardra!

Well actually, the crown might look regal, but it is only made of velvet, copper, and glass.  It was crafted in 1664 by an unknown English goldsmith as an impressive (but inexpensive) gift for the king of Ardra, a tiny slave-trading kingdom on the Bight of Benin.

Though worthless (aside from its antiquity and workmanship), the crown reveals a great deal about the era during which it was made.  In 1663, the Duke of York (Lord Admiral of the British Navy and brother to Charles II ) had sent an expedition to the West African coast to capture Dutch forts and trading posts.  Then in 1664, the English expelled the Dutch from North America by taking over the New Netherlands colonies (which were renamed in honor of the Lord Admiral).  The lands in North America were not especially valuable, however the Dutch coveted access to Africa, so in 1664, the Dutch navy struck back.  A fleet led by Michiel de Ruyter recaptured the African posts (before sailing across the Atlantic to make a punitive raid on the English colonies in North America).  This colonial grasping served the purpose of both sides–each of which was trying to goad the other into outright war.  The 2nd Anglo-Dutch War was declared in 1665.

Michiel de Ruyter (Ferdinand Bol, 1667, oil on canvas)

During de Ruyter’s 1664 mission, the Dutch fleet happened to capture the crown of Ardra, which was kept as a trophy of war and sort of survived the centuries by accident.  Today it is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and visitors can see it for what it truly is—a piece of junk meant to impress a tin-pot king and thereby pry open the African vertex of the triangle trade (which was key to controlling the valuable slave trade).

Still Life of Flowers, Shells, and Insects (Balthasar Van der Ast, c. 1635, oil on panel)

To compliment yesterday’s post concerning a miniature snake, here is a miniature work of art by my favorite Dutch miniature master (meaning he was a master of painting tiny still lifes—not an unusually tiny man).  Still Life of Flowers, Shells, and Insects was painted around 1635 by Balthasar Van der Ast.  Although the tiny panel is only 24 cm (9.4 in) tall by 35 cm (13.8 in) wide, it contains a world of detail. An entire spring garden’s worth of florid blossoms have been arranged in the large shell of a triton.  Spiders, caterpillars, and a quizzical grasshopper stalk among the empty shells of a cowry, a deadly cone snail, and other gastropods.  There is a palpable sense of drama among the three flying creatures in the painting: a predatory dragonfly is wreathed in darkness, staring the wrong way to see its prey animal–a painted lady butterfly.  The diagonal composition lines of the painting all point to the bottom right corner of the painting where a fearsome stinging hornet has died curled into a fetal position.

Van der Ast has dignified the small objects of a bouquet with a moral tension.  The lovely evanescent flowers, the beautiful (but dead) shells, and the circling hungry insects all point to an elusive lesson about chaos and beauty.

Like many of the great middle class miniature painters, Van der Ast lived a comfortable bourgeois life which featured little outward drama.  He moved between the quietly prosperous cities of Bergen op Zoom, Utrecht, and Delft, painting beautiful objects and teaching his craft to a number of influential artists (including his nephews).  He married and had daughters and died quietly compared to other baroque artists, yet the small dramas of his canvases seem to nobly symbolize the myriad crucial struggles—moral, emotional, and physical–of everyday life.

Treaty of Penn with Indians (Benjamin West, 1772, oil on canvas) shows Penn treating with the Delaware under under the great elm at Shackamaxon

Elm trees (genus Ulmus, family Ulmaceae) are deciduous and semi-deciduous trees which come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.  They first evolved 40 million years ago in central Asia, and since then they have spread around the entire northern hemisphere, even crossing the equator in the rain forests of Indonesia–and that is just the natural distribution of these trees. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century elm-loving gardeners took the plants elsewhere on the globe, particularly Australia, which is now renowned for its avenues of elms. But the pinnacle of elms was in America: the American elm is a particularly large and beautiful member of the family capable of growing 50 meters (130 feet) high and 40 meters (120 feet) wide in almost any soil.  The American elm’s tapering curve caused avenues of the trees to look like gothic vaults. Many of North America’s streets used to be huge 100 foot tall glowing green cathedrals made of living elm.

Elm-lined streets before and after Dutch Elm disease

The use of the past tense has probably warned you that there is a horror movie twist to this story. Alas, in 1928, a shipment of logs from The Netherlands destined for use as veneer in the Ohio furniture industry arrived in America.  The logs carried elm bark beetles which in turn carried ascomycete microfungi. It was the American beginning of Dutch elm disease, a blight which later wiped out millions of trees. Various different species of bark beetle are capable of transmitting closely related microfungi (namely Ophiostoma ulmi, Ophiostoma himal-ulmi, and the virulent Ophiostoma novo-ulmi).  These fungi seem to be able to hybridize with one another and form new strains…with new strengths.  The fungi apparently hail from China, but their province is unclear—at some point the trail goes cold (although Chinese species of elm seem resistant to the blight). Whatever the case, European and American elm trees were not ready for the spores.  Even with heavy use of pesticide, fungicide, and aggressive quarantines, the great elm populations of Western Europe and North America dwindled to a fraction of what they were in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Life Cycle of Ophiostoma ulmi

Dutch elm disease is its own special horror if you are a lover of trees (which I imagine you are if you are reading this blog), but there is a darker terror lurking behind the blight.  Dutch elm disease is one of the most famous blights of our era in North America so far, but it is by no means the only one.  Merriam Webster defines a blight as “(a) a disease or injury of plants marked by the formation of lesions, withering, and death of parts; or (b) an organism (as an insect or a fungus) that causes blights.” These blights are spreading and multiplying.  There is an oak blight, a bean blight, and a tomato blight. There are invasive tent caterpillars, mites, and galls. Although blights are technically defined as destroyers of plants, there are worrisome parallels in the world of animals. Frogs around the world have been dwindling from an exotic amphibian fungus. Bats in the northeast cannot hibernate thanks to a different fungus and they expire of energy loss.  And the fungi are not the only worrying players.  Everyone has followed the mass die-offs of honeybees from mites and who knows what else. The mixed-up super-fast dynamics of our human world mean that all sorts of critters, weeds, bugs, bacteria, protists, spores, and viruses end up traveling all over the place.  How long till a Dutch elm disease type plague strikes some life form we hold even more dearly?

Before I creep anyone out too much by writing in this vein, it is instructive to look back at the fossil record of elms. This is not the first great die-back for the trees.  According to pollen samples taken from ancient bogs, six thousand years ago, during the mid-Holocene period, all elm trees suddenly died back close to extinction in northwest Europe.  To a lesser extent the same thing happened again 3000 years ago.  It is possible that elm tree already establishing immunities to the current blights.  As I mentioned before, most Asian species are at least somewhat resistant to the fungus, and certain individuals and cultivars of once-common European and American Elms are gradually being discovered.  Our grandchildren might once again live on streets that are green cathedrals…

Five Shells Mounted on a Slab of Stone (Adriaen Coorte, 1696, oil on paper mounted on wood)

Here are three tiny paintings of seashells by the great Dutch still-life master Adriaen Coorte.  I would love to tell you more about Coorte, but I am unable to do so.  The date of his birth and his death are both unknown.  Aside from his apprenticeship to Melchior d’Hondecoeter (which took place in Amsterdam) it is believed that Coorte spent his entire life in Middelburg, Zeeland.   His signed paintings date from 1683 to 1707 and, according to records, he belonged to the Guild of Saint Luke.

Seashells (Adriaen Coorte, 1696, oil on paper mounted on wood)

Everything else we know about Coorte comes from his beautiful jewel-like paintings–which were also largely unknown until the 1950’s (when a fashionable art-historian publicised them to the world). The compositions are minimalist with dramatic lighting and exquisite object arrangement.  Coorte painted on paper which he then glued to wood (an unusual technique now and even more so during the 17th century).

Still Life with Shells (Adriaen Coorte, 1697 oil on paper on wood panel)

Along with Balthasar van der Ast and Antoine Berjon, Coorte was one of the greatest painters of seashells. He gives an emotional context to the shells while capturing their alien beauty. For example in the painting below, there is something about the spatial relationship between the spiny murex, the tiny red shell, the spiral, and the cowry which transforms the inanimate shells into actors in a tragic play.  The mysterious Coorte seems to know something about the fundamental nature of things that he can only reveal through these tiny charged tableaus, but like Coorte, the message remains a mystery.

Still Life with Shells (Adriaen Coorte,1698, oil on paper on wood panel)

Saul with his Servants at the Fortune-teller of Endor (Rembrandt van Rijn, 1657, bistre ink on paper)

I wrote earlier about sepia ink, the beautiful drawing and writing medium used in the Mediterranean for thousands of years which was obtained from the ink sacks of cuttlefish.  Was sepia ink also used by the great northern masters for their sketches? Not at all: there was an altogether different source of the beautiful smoky brown inks used by Brueghel, Durer, Lorraine, and Rembrandt (as well as most other German, French, Flemish, Dutch, and English artists) when they sketched from life. The name of the transparent shadowy brown pigment with yellow undertones was bistre and its source was not a mollusk but rather a tree.  Bistre was made with the soot left over from burning beechwood.  The beechwood ash was boiled with water to produce a cheap and superior drawing pigment. Although steel and copper nibs certainly existed, most masters probably sketched with simple reed pens or goose quills (waterfowl were generally agreed to provide the best drawing quills and geese were most readily available).

Since I have a great fondness for both beech trees, reeds, and geese, it cheers me to think that the great drawings of the old masters were produced with such humble materials. Unfortunately there is no way to set out any sort of comprehensive collection of bistre drawings: the medium was more universally used then anything other than carbon black.  Even a little sampler would involve a wildly eclectic mixture of works from all sorts of drafstmen from wildly different ages and schools. So, instead I am showing three little Rembrandt drawings to represent bistre. I don’t write as much about Rembrandt as I do about other lesser artists (i.e. the rest) because my feelings about his ineffable works are hard to characterize.  The “Lines and Color” blogs summarizes the scope of Rembrandt’s drawings:

Over 1,400 of his drawings survive, conservatively estimated at less than half of what he produced. (For most great artists we’re lucky to have a few dozen. For Vermeer and Franz Hals we have none.) Also unlike most of the great masters, the majority of Rembrandt’s drawings were not done as preparation for paintings, and very few were signed as pieces to be presented to friends or patrons. Most of his enormous outpouring of drawings were apparently done for himself, as visual record of his life and experience or simply for the joy in the act of drawing.

The multitude of subjects encompassed in 1,400 drawings provides a comprehensive overview of life in seventeenth century Holland (which was one of the focal points of the first wave of true globalism).  Out of the murky brown ink washes emerge an endless parade of long-vanished people, places, and things. The figures work, play, and struggle in cities manufactured of hasty brown lines under brown clouds beside an ink wash ocean (over which inky ships carried the spices of the old world and the furs from the new). Magicians scheme, children squall, and captive lions recline.  It is my favorite alchemy. Rembrandt gives us an entire world crafted out of water and beechwood ash.

Lion Resting, Turned to the Left (Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1650-52, ink on paper)

Still Life with Turkey Pie (Peter Claesz, 1627, oil on panel)

Here is a painting of a turkey pie and oysters created by the Dutch still-life master Pieter Claesz in 1627. The original is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (which provides high quality digital images of the works within its collection—so if you click above, you will be rewarded with a much larger picture).  The painting is small and was painted from a muted palate but Claesz employed a variety of subtle techniques to arrest the viewer’s attention.  The overall meaning of the painting is clear—it highlights the owners’ good taste and wealth.  It also symbolizes the success and growth of the Dutch Republic which were then at an all-time apogee.

This sort of painting is called a “banketgen”—literally a banquet painting. This example is exceptionally realistic.  Notice how the pewter jug reflects the rest of the feast and how the wine in the glass römer throws a yellow shadow over the table.  Protruding from the plane of the table, the lemon plate subconsciously invites the viewer to prevent it from tumbling onto the floor.  With consummate skill, Claesz has put his initials and the painting’s date on the blade of the knife as if they were engraved there.

The individual components of the feast form a picture of seventeenth century globalism.  The still-living oysters may have come from the coast of Holland but the lemons and olives were not native and could not survive the harsh northern winter.  They are the literal fruits of Dutch success at trade as are the Chinese porcelain kraak and the Persian table weave.  The twist of printed paper from the almanac contains salt and pepper, expensive commodities in the early seventeenth century but not as rare as the overseas spices in the pastry which has been broken open with a silver spoon.

New Amsterdam

Towering above the rest of the composition is the remarkable turkey dish, a large meat pie ornamented with the plumage, wings, and head of a wild turkey from the New World.  The exotic nature of the turkey and the rich gold and jewels of the nautilus goblet are the focal point on the composition.  Any Dutchman of the time would have instantly understood the meaning.  Manhattan had been purchased by Peter Minuit in 1626, only a year before this painting was finished.  New Amsterdam was growing across the Atlantic.  The maritime merchants of the Dutch republic were setting their table to gobble up the world itself. It is almost a shame that Claesz did not include a bowl of Indonesian sugar or a tank of Shell petroleum to perfect the picture.

Although we don't know what is in the shell goblet...

Of course there is a final element to this painting.  Tiny black spots of rot are forming on the apples inside the Chinese bowl. Did the artist foresee the ruinous colonial wars with France, Spain, and England?  Did he notice the growing tension between Royalists and Republicans or the schism between Dutch churches? Could he see that the banquet was about to be spoiled by events of the wider world or were the first touches of rot merely a visual flourish to convey a lesson about the limits of our little lives?

The Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of the Netherlands

The Kingdom of the Netherlands has the 16th highest nominal gross domestic product in the world. This becomes more impressive when one realizes the Dutch have the 61st largest population.  Holland’s long history of trade and empire has combined with its own native tradition of artistic excellence to leave the country littered with all manner of treasures and masterpieces.  The country is a parliamentary democracy ruled by a beloved sovereign, Queen Beatrix.  If you say anything censorious about the reigning monarch to a Dutch subject, you are likely to get a scowl and some harsh words (or possibly a fist).  At times, the personal net worth of Queen Beatrix has been reckoned to surpass that of the Queen of England (depending on the art and financial markets).

So what is the crown of the Queen of the Netherlands like? Actually the crown, which symbolizes the sovereignty of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (which presently consists of the Netherlands in Western Europe and two overseas territories in the Caribbean: the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba) and represents the dignity of the sovereign as head of state, is of comparatively recent construction.  It was made in 1840, upon the abdication of King William I, and it differs substantially from the heraldic crown of the house of Orange (which–being heraldic–exists only in depictions).   The actual crown is very small.  It appears to be gold but it is actually constructed of silver covered with thin gilding.  The crown has no actual jewels but is ornamented with colored glass, foil, and artificial pearls.  These “pearls” which are the chief feature of the royal headdress are constructed from paste covered with fish skin.

For some reason the Dutch kings and queens have never chosen to wear the crown during coronations, but the object has always been present on a special table.  The crown has only appeared in public during coronations (in 1898, 1948, and 1980), during a royal funeral in 1934, and at an exhibition in 1990.  Below is the largest picture I could find.

Um...the Royal Crown of the Kingdom of the Netherlands!

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